My biggest problem with most Chinese books and materials is the vocabulary they teach. They seem to include a lot of words that are necessary for the lesson they’re doing but uncommon and not particularly useful in the real world. So in my own study I’ve been focusing on authentic materials and… frequency lists.
I figure that the best way to learn useful mandarin is by focusing on the mandarin that is most-often used. In that vein I have a couple links for you.
HSK Word List by level: This is a search-able database of all the HSK vocabulary. For those of you who are unaware, the HSK is the official Chinese fluency test administered by the Chinese government. You can read more about it here. The test and word list are divided by language level, 1 through 4 (The test currently has 6 levels, but there are 4 ascending vocabulary lists). So by working one’s way through the levels, one should be able to build vocabulary (and fill in any gaps) from easy and frequent to difficult and rare. So how would one actually use this database as a study tool? Well…
HSK sentences Anki deck: Eureeka! Here is an Anki deck based on the HSK database. This deck is rather extensive with more than 20000 sentences (not individual words), but it is ordered by HSK level so I’ve been having fun blowing through all the easier level 1 vocab. After years of study, I’ve found that even in the easy level, there are a fair number of gaps in my knowledge. I’ve also found that some of the translations are a little off (the deck was created with a script rather than by hand), so watch out for that. The meaning is usually close though, and all in all I’ve found this to be a very useful tool. This deck can be downloaded within the Anki program. File–>download–>shared decks. Search for HSK sentences.
Chinese character frequency list: I found this while I was looking for a follow up to Heisig and Richardson’s: Remembering the Hanzi. I haven’t actually finished the book yet (I’m more into watching movies and learning new vocab right now. It’s not because I’m lazy, I swear), but I want to know where to go next. Since Remember the Hanzi part 2 isn’t available yet, I figured I’d need a character frequency list in order to continue making stories on my own. This is the list, and as soon as I finally finish the first 1500 characters I’ll know where to go next.
The method used in Remembering the Hanzi, by Heisig and Richardson to learn characters is the best I’ve ever seen. I use it myself and have seen the results. A friend of mine was able to learn to write 2000 Japanese characters in 5 weeks. I myself am able to easily memorize the writing of 10 characters a day and do all my reviews in less than 20 minutes. Here’s what it is and why it works.
The method is two-fold. First Heisig breaks the characters down into components which are learned individually and then combined to form more and more complicated characters. Each component is learned with an English keyword. For instance, in the first lesson the learner is introduced to the character for moon: 月. In the second lesson the learner is first introduced to the character for ancient, ‘古’, and then the character for recklessly, ‘胡’. As each new component is introduced, the new characters that it makes possible are also introduced.
Arranging the characters like this means that the learner knows all of the components before a new character is introduced. This allows for the second part of the method, visual story telling. Each character is given a story made up of its components keywords. Rather than writing characters dozens of times, the learner visualizes the story and writes the character once or twice. It may sound strange, but I’ve found that for more than 85% of characters this is enough. For the remaining 15%, you simply visualize the story one more time, and that generally does it.
With this method, it’s possible to learn dozens of characters a day, or (if you’re lazy like me) 10 a day in a space of 10-15 minutes. By taking a minute or so to visualize the story for each character you save a lot of time usually spent copying and then forgetting and then copying again.
So where do the stories come from?
Heisig gives you stories for the first 500 characters and for select characters after that. After the first 500, he just gives you the keywords. Additional stories are available for download. I’ll explain more about that later.
What about pronunciation?
This is the part a lot of people have a difficult time swallowing. Using Heisig, you’re asked to completely ignore pronunciation. This is done on purpose. The pronunciations are listed in the back, but you’re not meant to memorize them. It’s only by ignoring the pronunciation that one is able to use this system quickly and easily. I’ve seen a lot of people object to this, but I urge everyone to consider what they gain if they’re willing to put aside pronunciation at least while memorizing characters. With this method you can learn to write 1500 characters in 20-30 minutes a day for 6 months. As I mentioned in the introduction, a motivated learner can do it much faster.
As a long-term learner of Chinese, I tell you that this is nothing short of miraculous. Many learners aren’t able to read or write 1500 characters after years of study. With this method you can have the characters largely handled in your first 6 months. This takes care of the hardest part of Chinese, the writing system, and frees you up for more important tasks (like enjoying the language).
In addition, learning how to pronounce the characters will come with time as you learn Chinese words and phrases. You’ll learn words more quickly when you already know the writing and keyword for the characters, and you’ll find that adding the pronunciation later comes much more easily than for those who study both together. It’s kind of like learning the alphabet first and then using it to make words later (though without the pronunciation in this case).
You also have the option of going back through the 1500 characters and memorizing the pronunciation after you’ve finished if you wish. The bottom line is that breaking things down produces a significant benefit in terms of efficiency and mental performance.
Great, I’m sold. How do I review?
This is where it gets really interesting. Heisig recommends making flashcards for each character so that you can review. This can time-consuming (but still much better than anything that came before). Fortunately, there are flashcard programs available online that take care of this for you. Anki, is the hands down best choice, because of the decks of flashcards that are available for free download. In fact, there’s a pre-made deck of the flashcards already available for Remembering the Hanzi. You just download it and off you go.
Anki uses a system called spaced repetition, which is one of the best methods for memorization and review currently available. To learn more about Anki and spaced repetition, read this article on Anki.
This site is here to aggregate all of the best Chinese resources available on and off the net. I’m starting with all of the tools that I’ve found in my nearly 5 years studying Chinese. Among them are the things that I wish I’d known about when I first started.
If I had to give one piece of advice to someone just starting out, it would be to use the Heisig and Richardson book in conjunction with Anki. With those tools it is possible to learn to write 1500 chinese character in 3-6 months with relative ease. One of the hardest parts of Chinese is the characters. With those tools, that piece can be accomplished very quickly.
What follows is a preliminary list of resources with brief descriptions. This list will be developed over time. Check back for additional descriptions, reviews and links to other articles and blogs. Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world. Best of luck.
Remembering the Hanzi, by: James W. Heisig & Timothy W. Richardson
The best way to learn characters that I have ever seen. Learn and remember 10 characters a day in 20 minutes. I know someone personally who breezed through 2000 characters (Japanese version) in 5 weeks. He was not a beginner, but the feat is still impressive. The website offers a the first 60 pages of both the Simplified and Traditional versions as a free sample. If you want to learn characters, this is THE book.
Anki is an amazing tool for remember anything. It’s a spaced repetition flashcard program and one of the better one’s. The problem with flashcards is that you review easy words to often and hard words not often enough. Spaced repetition solves this problem by showing you the cards at intervals based on how difficult they are for you. Hard words show up again sooner. Easy word show up later. The program handles everything, so all you have to do is click easy, good, hard or again. This minimizes review time to maximize performance.
What’s even better, the program has hundreds of pre-made decks including one for Remembering the Simplified Hanzi. If you get the book, it’s all set up for you. You just sit down every day and click “start reviewing.” It’s a beautiful thing.
fantastic online dictionary
Useful software dictionary with some helpful features. This is a pay program.
hundreds of online audio lessons with a range of levels and topics
another online lesson site, this site focuses more on advanced learners and has some HSK practice materials
another popular online dictionary
Online flashcard site. Just login and start creating your cards. Spaced repetition is available
Web community of chinese learners. Good place to ask questions.
Taiwan based flashcard site. This site provides flashcards in simplified or traditional Mandarin. Flashcards are available for words and sentences and are organized by frequency which is very helpful. The site also offers paragraphs with translation. It is especially helpful for learning Taiwanese usage, which can be hard to find outside of Taiwan.
An interesting blog with a lot of information about Chinese learning. Run by a key member of the Chinesepod team.
Another interesting blog from an expat living in Taiwan. It has a number of great articles on language learning and life in Taiwan. I highly recommend the articles on Intensive and Extensive reading.
A listing service for language teachers and students to find each other. This is not a Chinese specific site, but there are lots of Chinese teachers and tutors listed.
This is a site for finding language exchange partners. It is not Chinese specific, but there are a lot of Chinese-related listings.
This is a plugin for firefox that allows you to mouse over chinese characters and be given they’re meaning and pronunciation. Extremely useful.
I haven’t checked this out yet, because it’s PC only, but I’ve heard great things about it. Easy to use, great prediction and it allows strings of any length. The site is only in Chinese, but the giant blue button starts the download.
This is a fantastic collection of articles, essays and links on language learning in general: how tobuild a language study program, techniques, methods, etc. If you want to understand language learning, this is a good place to check out.